The Intelligent Design-Young Earth Creationist tension

At the height of the battles over the efforts of intelligent design creationists (IDC) to have their ideas taught as an alternative to evolution in the science curriculum in public schools, I wrote an article that was published in the June 2002 issue of Physics Today under the title Philosophy Is Essential to the Intelligent Design Debate in which I argued that important ideas about the nature of science that had been made by philosophers of science were not being adequately used by the defenders of science who were trying to keep religious ideas like IDC out of the school science curriculum.

I had largely forgotten that article until a week or so ago when I received a long email from someone who must have just come across it. His email argued that I was wrong and that I did not really understand science or the scientific method. He then went on to repeat all the arguments that IDC supporters use, with the bulk of it trying to explain why evolution is a failed theory. This was all drearily familiar to me but what intrigued me was his statement at the end: “By the way, I am not a part of the Intelligent Design group. I don’t agree with them on a few things.” Why was he disassociating himself from them? What were these ‘few things’?

My reply was brief and I used it to plug my book because it does address every misconception of science that the email contained, although I hadno illusions that he will read it.

Thank you for your email.

I am familiar with the arguments that you present. They all seem to me to arise from an incorrect understanding of how science works. It would take too long for me to answer all your questions here but fortunately I do not have to. I have just published a book (see below) that addresses all these issues (and more) and you can read them there.

As I expected (because religious believers are indefatigable) I then got another very long email that again said that I did not understand the nature of science or the scientific method and once more rehashed the arguments against evolution. But then came the kicker at the end that explained his distancing from the IDC people in the first email. He was a Young Earth creationist who thought the Earth was less than 10,000 years old. He then ended up with following:

Mano, the Bible says in the last days certain scoffers will scoff at three things: original creation, the great flood, and the coming judgment of God. Sounds like a prediction that has come true. Did you know you were fulfilling prophecy?

I hope you arrive at the truth Mano before it is everlastingly too late. I wish you well, and a Merry CHRISTmas and a Great Eternity. Have a passion for the truth: The reality of what actually happened, and is going to happen. The REAL TRUTH will set you free.

That paragraph also made it all clear to me because this was a pattern I was very familiar with from my days actively dealing with the IDC movement. The Biblical literalists would use the more sophisticated IDC arguments when debating scientists but rejected the IDC acceptance that evolution had occurred or that the Earth was billions of years old. In return, the IDC people needed the young Earth creationists because these evangelicals were far more numerous in number and more politically influential. So there was a tacit agreement between the two groups to paper over the deep differences between their two stances on the age of the Earth and the broader features of evolution in order to work in concert to defeat the idea of evolution as an undirected process. This was the so-called Wedge Strategy.

As I discussed in my previous book God vs. Darwin, it was the Dover, PA trial in 2005 that ripped away this camouflage and sank the stealth strategy of the IDC movement by bringing to the surface its inherent contradictions, and that ultimately the IDC people, like the young Earth creationists, were appealing to supernatural forces to explain natural phenomena and that was why it was not science.

I would see this dual track approach on display when, before the Dover trial, I was invited by the IDC people to their conferences to debate them. On the stage would be IDC people with their quasi-scientific arguments using the language of science. They would avoid questions on the age of the Earth and focus on the few esoteric instances that they claimed evolution could not explain. But when I got down from the stage and mingled and talked with the attendees, they were almost all biblical literalists who believed in a 6,000 year old Earth with a single-minded determination.

Curiously, these exchanges almost always ended up with the claim that they were praying for me so that I would not end up in hell. The more annoyed they seemed with me, the more likely they were to say they were praying for me. It was like a mantra that was put out to suggest that they were acting out of Christian concern rather than threatening me with eternal damnation. It was weird to have someone who had been arguing with me snarl that they would pray for me before turning on their heels and stalking away. On a different occasion, I even had an angry person call me up in the middle of the night to take me to task for an opinion column that I had written for the newspaper. When I asked him why he had to wake me up to tell me this, he said that he was praying for me and ended the call. I would have preferred him letting me sleep undisturbed to his prayers.

So this latest email exchange followed a script I am very familiar with, because many of these people believe in the imminent arrival of the end times and that if I do not repent, I will go to hell. Whenever I get this “I will pray for you”, and I get it a lot from believers when they find they have failed to persuade me, I always have the feeling that it is a threat more than an expression of concern, along the lines of “Nice life you got here. Too bad if something happened to you in the afterlife.”

Incidentally, this email exchange made me go back and re-read my 2002 article and the views I expressed there are very much consistent with the views I hold now and expanded upon in my most recent book The Great Paradox of Science.


  1. johnson catman says

    Thinly veiled threats are all they have, though their efforts to thwart any attempts at climate change mitigation could eventually bring about the apocalypse that they so greatly desire.

  2. says

    So this latest email exchange followed a script I am very familiar with

    They’re kinda not allowed to come up with new arguments, so they keep replaying stuff that was refuted in roman times. It makes them pretty tedious.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the feeling that it is a threat more than an expression of concern…

    Funny how the most energetic proponents of what they consider the most advanced ethical framework in the universe so consistently use threats of unending torture as their first and last resorts.

  4. mnb0 says

    Nothing in this article is new to me; the title is in a way inaccurate. IDers and YECers have more in common than that they differ. It’s because all forms of creationism consist of three essential elements:

    1. Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy;
    2. God of the Gaps;
    3. Evolution is wrong.

    The third element gets stressed most, because even creationists get tired of bringing up yet another variation of the first two fallacies. The important thing to realize is that YECers can use every single ID argument; they only need to add a few Bible quotes and a 6000 years old Earth. So it’s easy for YECers and IDers (in between there also are OECers like Hugh Ross, the astronomer) to ally against their common enemy.
    Because this is all there is to creationism it’s totally unsurprising that the two emails you received don’t contain anything new. It’s why “teach the controversy” is so funny -- you can teach creationism within 15 minutes at the max. The rest will be an endless repetition.
    Perhaps the most interesting part is that the line between ID and “regular” apologetics also is so vague that we can call it non-existing. Creationists (even Ken Ham, of Gay Wooden Box fame) have no difficulty to add the Cosmological Argument and its offspring, Fine-Tuning, to their toolbox. At the other hand I’ve read a Dutch thesis written the Dutch apologist (and mathematician!) Emanuel Rutten that used Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy. He became doctor in “philosophy of religion” with his thesis, while totally failing to discuss the various problems with this analogy.
    Since long I’ve concluded that categories are handy, but that there are no sharp lines between various forms of apologetics, including the creationist variations. So it’s also unsurprising that WL Craig is a Discovery Institute Fellow and Alvin Plantinga at one point criticized evolution theory in a way YECers would approve. At this point we arrive at the observation that the incapability of apologists to reach any form of consensus is an argument against them -- they lack a reliable method (btw so do Jesus Mythologists).
    It’s a funny question to ask christians -- there are various books called something like Introduction to College Physics. No matter who writes them, their content is largely the same. Where is the Introduction to College Apologetics/Theology, written in cooperation of a member of Opus Dei, a liberation theologian, an orthodox-protestant (ie radical calvinist) theologian and a liberal anglican theologian?

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Long ago, I read somewhere (Scientific American? American Scientist?) an excellent proposal: young Earth creationists should have to defend their “theories” in toto.
    For instance, the great numbers of craters on the moon are incompatible with a young solar system. The author had managed to dig up a young Earth believer who attributed the lunar craters to battles between angels during Lucifer’s insurrection! We should press young Earth believers to explain details of a comprehensive model consistent with their faith. The result would be hilarious, on a par when the secret handshakes and rituals of the KKK became public knowledge.
    -Ridicule is a very potent tool, and I do not mind using it against those who would oppose modern medicine in favor of “laying of hands” by spiritual charlatans.

  6. Allison says

    You’ve got more patience with lost causes than I would have.

    It seems obvious to me that this is someone who is not interested in actually learning anything or engaging with you. He just wants to defend his ignorance from threatening ideas. I mean, these subjects are hard enough as it is for people who want to find a measure of enlightenment. Why spend the precious minutes of your life on people who are devoting their energy to remaining in “en-darken-ment”?

    IMHO, life’s too short. (But then again, in this case it’s your life….)

  7. says


    As an aside, I note that your Physics Today article includes this line:

    They invited dismal comparisons with the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt in 1616 to ban Copernican theory or the Soviet Central Committee’s attempt in 1949 to dismiss Mendeleevian genetics as pseudoscience.

    I think it most likely that the error I have emphasized was introduced by an editor rather than by you, but either way, I found it funny. It’s just the kind of error that could easily be made in a physics rag talking about biology.

  8. Matt G says

    There was an amusing article published recently by a Biblical creationist who was criticizing Biblical geocentrism. What was so amusing was that every argument he made against geocentrism was equally applicable to creationism. Many irony meters went up in flames that day.

  9. Matt G says

    mnbo@4- You didn’t even mention Hindu theologians, Mormon theologians, Buddhist theologians, Shinto theologians, Jain theologians, etc.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Crip Dyke @#7,

    Good catch of the error! I wish I could blame Physics Today for it but the error was mine (thoughtless typing) and the editors did not catch it.

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